BART Management Looks Pretty Silly Right About Now

So let me get this straight.

BART management signed a contract with their unions on October 21. Apparently, three folks representing management signed the contract. One of them was their highly paid negotiator. Now, nearly a month later, BART is saying they had no idea that a provision in the contract calls for paid FMLA leave for up to six weeks. They are calling it a mistake. It will cost the agency too much money. A clerical error made by a temp introduced the language last July, says BART, and somehow no one noticed.

Really? No one?

Let me say this again.  Three!  Three!  Three representatives of BART management signed this thing, apparently without having read it or vetted it.  Three!  Three?  Yes, three! (Cue Count von Count laugh and thunder.)

When my partner and I bought our first house, this happened. We excitedly went to the title company to sign a grip of papers, as one normally does during escrow closing. And we began signing this sheet and that sheet. Then came the mortgage documents, but something was awry. It was not the mortgage we agreed to. Did we blithely sign the documents anyway, so that we could complain about it a month later? No! We raised holy hell until the mortgage broker provided us with the deal we said we wanted, and then we signed it.

My partner and I had only our realtor, a very knowledgeable realtor to be sure, to help guide us. We did not have a phalanx of attorneys to read the documents. Just our realtor and us. And yet we avoided signing something that we did not want.

So what the hell is BART’s excuse? BART, like any big company, must have a phalanx of attorneys. You mean to tell me that not one attorney, not one, read over the agreement with a fine tooth comb to vet it before allowing it to be signed by management? I can’t even comprehend such thinking.

But this is what BART wants us to believe. So now they are saying that the provision will cost the agency too much money and that they can’t accept the agreement. By their estimate, the provision may cost potentially $44 million during the life of the contract. Paid FMLA is a rather unusual benefit. FMLA exists to allow employees to go on long-term leave to care for a family member, or oneself, during a medical emergency. Typically, any time off taken under FMLA has to be covered by sick leave, vacation leave, comp time off, or leave without pay. Some companies have time sharing where one coworker can donate leave time to another. But for a company to grant paid leave during the whole of a FMLA leave is indeed very generous.

It’s also very exceptional. It’s not something that I would think could remain hidden within a contract. Indeed, since such a provision has a clear fiscal consequence, I would think that it should have been flagged right off for particular scrutiny. Any provision of a labor agreement which deals with money should undergo such scrutiny. Again, I find it hard, nay impossible, to believe that such fine tooth combing did not occur before management signed this contract.

So what’s really going on here? Here’s my way-out theory.

BART management received considerable shade from the public over the final contract deal. Many felt it was too generous to labor. Some believe that it came about because of guilt over the tragic deaths that occurred during the second strike in October. The second strike only happened because BART management did not agree with provisions dealing with work rules. Rather than go to arbitration, as suggested by the union, they folded their arms and said no deal. Then the union went on strike.

Transit strikes are extremely unpopular, even in progressive regions like the Bay Area. What better way to further instigate negative feelings against the union than to force them into a strike? That’s what I think management is doing here. They found something in the contract that they could claim was shady and could say that they did not agree to. They raise a fuss. They refuse to ratify it, even after all the unions did. We’re back at square one again. We have the unions go on strike again, a third (3!) time.

Public opinion then lines up firmly against the union. Management looks tough. Etcetera.

Conspiracy theory? Perhaps, perhaps not. BART has not operated in full-on good faith. For one, they hired the overpriced Mr. Thomas Hock to negotiate on their behalf, to the tune of $300,000 (the union claims $399,000). The East Bay Express reports that he has a history of running afoul of federal labor laws. He went on vacation during critical moments during the negotiation. He ate up time dithering during the 60-day cooling off period Governor Brown called for, which ended the first strike. Clearly his agenda was to get the union, not to quickly come to a fair deal.

Well, that’s one way to do business. But is it the best way? Is that the way to keep the system running and solvent. I don’t think so. How about this. How about being honest and upfront about costs and expenses. How about reading your damn contracts before signing them so that you don’t go back later and say “Whoops! Our bad!” How about really working to avoid strikes rather than encouraging them. How about it, BART?

Robert Gammon at the Express is calling for BART General Manager Grace Crunican to resign. Considering how she badly mishandled the labor negotiations, I’d say her resignation is a good call. But let’s not stop there. I, for one, will be paying very close attention the next time my BART board director is up for reelection. Admittedly, this is not an office I have paid the greatest attention to. But I will now. I want to make sure that Adults are sitting at the table, Adults who know how to read things before signing them. Adults who know how to negotiate and not grandstand.

Grandstanding does not solve problems. Hard work does. So does reading contracts. I don’t think either are hard demands to make of BART management.

© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.

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